When You Have Too Much to Do

Find focus and clarity to plow through your to-do list
By Leo Babauta, www.zenhabits.net

You are managing multiple projects, buried in email and have a to-do list that scrolls on for days.

It all keeps piling up, and it can feel overwhelming.

How do you keep up with it all and find the focus to get stuff accomplished when you have too much on your plate?

The First Step: Triage

Whether you’re just starting your day, or you’re in the middle of the chaos and just need to find some sanity, the first step is to get into triage mode.

Triage, is sorting through the chaos to prioritize: What needs to be done now, what needs to be done today, what needs to be done this week, and what can wait? You’re looking at urgency but also what’s meaningful and important.

Here’s what you might do:

  1. Pick out the things that need to be done today. Start a list of things you’re going to do today. That might be important tasks for big projects, urgent tasks that could result in damage if you don’t act, or smaller admin tasks that you really should take care of today like responding to important messages. Be ruthless and cut out as much as you can; have just 5 things on your plate if that’s at all possible.
  2. Push some things to tomorrow and the rest of the week. If you have deadlines that can be pushed back (or renegotiated), do that. Spread out the work over the week or even into next week. What needs to be done tomorrow? What can wait a day or two longer?
  3. Eliminate what you can. That might mean just not replying to some messages that aren’t that important and don’t really require a reply. It might mean telling some people that you can’t take on this project after all, or that you need to get out of the commitment that you said you’d do. Yes, this is uncomfortable. For now, just put them on a list called, “To Not Do,” and plan to figure out how to get out of them later.

OK, you have some breathing room and a manageable list now! Let’s shrink that down even further and just pick one thing.

Next: Focus on One Thing

With a lot on your plate, it’s hard to pick one thing to focus on. But that’s exactly what you need to do.

Pick one thing and give it your focus.

The shift:

  1. Pick something to focus on. Look at the triaged list. If you have five to six things on this short list, you can assess whether there are any super urgent, time-sensitive things you need to take care of. If there are, pick one of them. If not, pick the most important one—probably the one you have been putting off.
  2. Clear everything else away. Just for a little bit. Close all browser tabs, turn off notifications, close all apps, and put your phone away.
  3. Put that one task before you, and allow yourself to be with it completely. Pour yourself into it. Think of it as a practice, of letting go (of everything else), of focus, and of radical simplicity.

When you’re done (or after 15 to 20 minutes have gone by at least), you can switch to something else. But don’t allow yourself to switch until then.

By giving yourself completely to that thing, you’ve started a shift that will lead to focus and sanity.

Third: Schedule Time to Simplify

Remember the To Not Do list above? Schedule some time this week to start reducing your projects, saying no to people, getting out of commitments, and crossing stuff off your task list so that you can have some sanity back.

There are lots of little things that you’ve said “yes” to that you probably shouldn’t have. That’s why you’re overloaded. Protect your more important work, and your time off, and your peace of mind, by saying “no” to things that aren’t as important.

Schedule the time to simplify, if not today, sometime soon.

Fourth: Practice Mindful Focus

Go through the rest of the day with an attitude of “mindful focus.” That means that you are doing one thing at a time, being as present as you can, switching tasks as little as you can.

Think of it as a settling of the mind. A new mode of being.

As you practice mindful focus, you’ll learn to practice doing things with an open heart, with curiosity and gratitude, and even with joy. Try these one at a time as you get to do each task on your short list.

You’ll find that you’re not so overloaded but that each task is just perfect for that moment. And that’s a completely new relationship with the work that you do and a new relationship with life.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books and the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers. Visit ZenHabits.net